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Finding the Hero’s Journey in Crowd Favorite Films

By Sara McGuire

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Any movie pop culture buff will probably be familiar with the Hero’s Journey. A contemporary version of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey is an archetypal plot structure that forms the basis of almost every movie in Hollywood.

Christopher Vogler, the man who condensed the Hero’s Journey into the twelve stages we’re most familiar with, developed the archetype while working at Disney.

Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey

As a very brief reminder, the twelve stages of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey are:

  1. The Ordinary World: The hero is introduced in the ordinary world.
  2. The Call to Adventure: The initiating conflict alerts the hero to the adventure.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero is hesitant to accept the call to adventure in the special world.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: The mentor introduces the hero to the special world and guides them in training to embark on the adventure.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero passes the point no return and commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies: The hero explores the special world and makes friends and enemies along the way.
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave: The hero draws closer to both the heart of the special world and the heart of the story.
  8. The Ordeal: The hero faces their greatest challenge yet and undergoes a process of “death” and “rebirth.”
  9. The Reward: The hero experiences the consequences of surviving “death” and obtains the object of their quest.
  10. The Road Back: The hero begins their return to the ordinary world but a final trial faces them.
  11. The Resurrection: The hero emerges from the special world changed by their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world with their special object, which they use to make the ordinary world better.

Once you become familiar with the cyclical stages of the Hero’s Journey, the plot structure becomes apparent, in some capacity, in nearly every movie you watch. Even if the stages don’t play out in the exact same order as they are listed, they are still present. That’s because the Hero’s Journey is a character-driven plot structure centering on the protagonist undergoing a change; this is a plot that can be interpreted and incorporated into virtually every story.

This infographic (click to enlarge) shows how six iconic movies follow the same path of the Hero’s Journey:

Hero's Journey

Movies That Follow the Hero’s Journey

One of the most commonly cited examples is Star Wars, which does follow the plot structure very closely, except that Luke encounters his Mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, before he refuses the call to adventure. Still, Luke’s classic heroism, the trials he faces against the Dark Side, and the allies he gains along the way are so textbook that Star Wars lends itself very well to the Hero’s Journey. It was the unique setting, compelling characters and other original details that made the story so exciting when it was released--but it’s a combination of these unique elements and the tried and true plot structure that make it a classic.

The Hero’s Journey crops up in virtually every iconic movie you can think of over the last fifty years. Take one of Disney’s biggest successes: The Lion King (1994). The movie follows Simba, the young heir to Pride Rock, who is tricked into exile by his uncle Scar. In reality, Scar wants to usurp the throne and become king, but Simba is led to believe that he was the one who caused his father’s death.  When Scar tells Simba he must leave at once, Simba answers the call to adventure and finds himself alone in the unknown desert. He is found by Timon and Pumbaa, his two mentor figures, who introduce him to a “hakuna matata” lifestyle in the jungle (the “Special World”).

Simba’s greatest trial is introduced by his reunion with his childhood friend, Nala. She tells Simba about the about Scar’s wrath and encourages him to return to Pride Rock and take back his rightful role as king. This could be seen as a repeating of the call to adventure phase and it also represents the approach to the innermost cave.  His greatest ordeal is facing not only Scar (physical), but also the guilt he feels for the death of his father, Mufasa (emotional). The “elixir” that he ultimately returns to the “Ordinary World” with is his clear conscience and the knowledge that his father will live on within him.

Spider-Man (2002) also follows the Hero’s Journey perfectly, despite being in an entirely different story in terms of characters, setting, and genre. Peter Parker is a meek, nerdy boy living in Queens. He receives his call to adventure when a genetically-engineered spider bites him on a school trip to the Oscorp lab and he develops spider-like powers. At first, he uses his powers frivolously to gain money in an underground wrestling ring, a refusal of the “call” to use his powers to fight crime. Uncle Ben is his mentor (a mentor who dies earlier than most mentors), who offers him an iconic piece of advice: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

When uncle Ben is killed by a runaway thief outside of Peter’s wrestling venue--the very same thief that Peter allowed to escape--Peter crosses the threshold and enters the symbolic “special world” where he uses his powers to fight crime. After his trials facing the Green Goblin and saving love-interest Mary-Jane, the “elixir” he gains is knowledge of the dark side of life (after all, his best friend’s father, Norman Osborn, turns out to be the Green Goblin) and the resolution that he must use his powers to protect the city and the people he loves. Where the resolution of Simba’s story was a happy one, Peter Parker’s story ends on a bittersweet note--this shows that while a plot may have the same core structure, the stories can still vary greatly between them.

The Heroine’s Journey

What the infographic above does not include are movies featuring heroines who follow the same plot structure. Such movies exist, popular examples being The Hunger Games and The Wizard of Oz, but they are far fewer than their male-centric counterparts. That’s why, in response to the Hero’s Journey, literary and pop culture theorists have developed the Heroine’s Journey.

The most well-known interpretation of the Heroine’s Journey was developed by Maureen Murdock. Like the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey is cyclical and takes place between the “Ordinary World” and the “Special World”, however, the stages are focused on the heroine’s process of rejection and re-acceptance of the feminine. This archetypal plot structure is much less known than the Hero’s Journey, but more film enthusiasts are starting to use it as a framework to analyze stories.

Movies that follow the Heroine’s Journey include Room (2015), Brave (2012) and Inside Out (2015). As films with female protagonists become more and more prominent in mainstream film, we’re probably going to see more and more films that follow the Heroine’s Journey. I know I’m excited to see what movies are to come.

Maybe we’ll also start to see some Heroine’s Journey infographics pop up. For now, the Hero’s Journey is a plot structure that continues to guide crowd favorite films.

About Sara McGuire

Sara McGuire is a Creative Content Specialist at Venngage infographics. In her free time she enjoys baking, reading graphic novels and poetry, and hanging out with her cat.

Screenwriting Article by Sara McGuire

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